The Fault in Our Stars, The Metatext

The extraction of the metatextual references made in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Every other week is an exploration of a chapter. Submissions are welcome!


[Note: As it was not initially mentioned, Sundays are miscellany days for TFIOS related content. This means an exploration of a certain theme, idea, character, or quote presented in the novel that was not touched upon by other posts throughout the week. This Sunday’s miscellany post is about Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac’s names. Posts will resume on Monday, Februry 27 for Chapter Two. In the meantime, feel free to submit and stay tuned!]

When asked about why he chose the name Hazel, John Green has said,
“Hazel is the space beteeen two colors which I like.”
However, this aside, Hazel’s name is also specific in that it can not be shortened into a nickname, like so many other names can. She calls herself at one point, “univalent Hazel.” She enjoys people who have names that can be shortened (like Augustus) because she can choose what to call them. Choosing how to see someone and how to feel about them is something Hazel comes to learn as the novel progresses.

Augustus is the name of the first emperor of the Roman Empire, and is a name that carries the grandeur of an illustrious history with it. We see Augustus alternate between being highly confident, coming off as manic pixie dream boy in his seemingly perfect flaws, and being a boy, a normal, desperate and frightened boy. Gus, his nickname (and the name that Hazel calls him when his vulnerable side shows), is smaller and innocent in contrast to the name Augustus. The more we see of Gus, the more we come to realize his flaws are not perfect, but flaws that cause him pain. We see him past is confidence and we see the boy underneath simply trying to understand his purpose in the universe. Furthermore, his surname Waters highlights the nourisher/destroyer theme of water in TFIOS.

The name Isaac seems to be based off the biblical Isaac, who goes blind in his old age. As the third party to what is described as a “star crossed lovers” tale, Isaac becomes not only a potential teller of Hazel and Augustus’s story (as many traditional story tellers are indeed blind), but another perspective on love and how it is the one true thing in a world where truth is so varied. 

The Serenity Prayer


“The circle filled in with the unlucky twelve-to-eighteens, and then Patrick started us out with the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” Green (10).

 The Serenity Prayer, most commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, expresses devotion and belief in God’s ability to provide serenity, courage, and wisdom when grappling with the faults the stars throw at us. The surrendering of self this prayer suggests highlights the theme introduced by the title of TFIOS; there are faults in our stars. The injustices suffered are not all faults of our own, but faults of a higher force, be it God, or the universe, the simply complex and inexplicable nature of surviving in a world that was not built for humans. The Serenity Prayer relinquishes power to God, and therefore relinquishes power to a greater force believed to be responsible for the faults in our stars. This reveals a belief that while the universe may be responsible for the flaws and failures of life, the universe can provide humanity the serenity, courage, and wisdom to continue onward despite these flaws. The Serenity Prayer acknowledges the shortcomings of being human, and seeks to accept help from a force more powerful than humanity. The humility of existing in a vast universe is an inherent aspect of being human, regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs.

And while we’re on the topic of a vast universe, we can address Augustus’s fears

“‘I fear oblivion,’ he said without a moment’s pause.

 ‘I fear it like the proverbial blind man who’s afraid of the dark’” (Green 12).

 There are countless proverbs and quotes addressing the symbolism of the ‘blind man’ and the ‘dark.’ You will find lists of religious proverbs on blindness here and a list of quotes on blindness here.

V for Vendetta

“‘You’re like a millennial Natalie Portman. Like V for Vendetta Natalie Portman.’

‘Never seen it,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he asked. ‘Pixie-haired gorgeous girl dislikes authority and can’t help but fall for a boy she knows is trouble. It’s your autobiography, so far as I can tell’”(Green 17).

Hazel gives a brief synopsis of V for Vendetta (which is also a book) in chapter two, saying, “The movie was about this heroic guy in a mask who died heroically for Natalie Portman, who’s pretty badass and very hot and does not have anything approaching my puffy steroid face” (Green 25).

The emphasis on heroism in Hazel’s summary addresses the varied definitions of heroism throughout TFIOS. Augustus admires the depiction of heroism in V for Vendetta, connecting with the meaning attributed to a life sacrificed for the sake of a person or ideal. This quest for meaning illustrates the struggle of trying to define the purpose of existing while accepting the inevitability of oblivion.

Hazel’s response to the film characterizes gender perspectives Green makes throughout TFIOS, declaring, “It was kind of a boy movie” (Green 35). The sacrificial heroism and heightened passionate violence in V for Vendetta appears to make it “a boy movie,” in that it suggests a connection between what boys view in culture and what subsequently becomes the obligatory response to opposition and fear. Green seems to emphasize an inversion in gender roles with how he portrays his characters and the way they address the world around them. Even in the structure of the story, Hazel’s role as narrator challenges a common stigma of epic love stories in which men narrate the tale.

[An aside: The picture above is a scene of symbolic rebirth for Evey (Natalie Portman), where she is metaphorically washed clean of all the injustices committed against her and her fears. The rain here becomes a positive symbol. In TFIOS, water is a recurring symbol, and it too retains positive connotations depending on its context. Hazel’s interaction with water throughout the novel connects back to the epigraph, in which water is both a positive and negative force of nature.]

The Sword of Damocles

“…and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life” (Green 5).

In Hazel’s description of Patrick, the leader of the Support Group which she attends, she references the ancient Greek moral anecdote, The Sword of Damocles.

Damocles, a courtier of Dionysius II of Syracuse, makes commentary on the opulence and great power in the life of Dionysius, emphasizing the good fortune of the tyrant. Dionysius offers to trade places with Damocles, an offer which Damocles, after viewing the luxurious lifestyle of Dionysius, eagerly accepts. However, once Damocles takes the throne and assumes the extravagance of one in power, Dionysius arranges for a sword to hang over Dionysius’s head, suspended only by a strand of horse hair. Upon this realization, Damocles begs for liberation from the agreement. It is fear that allows Damocles to begin to comprehend the life of a tyrant. A life of uncertainty and constant awareness of mortality.

The irony in Hazel’s description of Patrick lies within this reference to Damocles. Though Dionysius does indeed live a life of magnificence, the reality of his life lacks magnificence in the face of constant impending doom. Patrick is no Dionysius. And Patrick’s wearied and banal trudging through “what only the most generous soul would call his life” contains neither the glamour of being a powerful tyrant, nor the luxury of being so fortunate as to cast speculation upon the life of another.

Hazel makes a point throughout the book of resenting the “heroism” of cancer patients, where those who live healthy lives can cast an idea of virtue and aspire to the wisdom and strength of these superhuman and unfortunate survivors. She notes the blatant error of assigning cancer patients heroic and wise lifestyles, when in fact there simply exists a person, attempting not only to grapple with cancer, but with understanding how to be human. Hazel says in chapter two, “Illness repulses.” The same is true of idealizing someone to the point of becoming more than human, and in this way, not human at all.

This theme of idealization clashing with reality gets established with this reference, as does the idea that the fragility of an ideal (or a person) does not make it a precious or ‘fortunate’ thing (as Damocles would have believed).

Issac and Owl Eyes

In addition to the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, I think Issac may have occasionally been similar to “Owl Eyes” (also from Gatsby). Not only were his glasses similar, but the way he was often a mere observer of events (his breakup, his friend’s illness)over which he had little control reminded me of Owl Eyes’ reaction to Gatsby’s library and the car crash after one of Gatsby’s parties. Also that’s a run on and I apologize.

[thank you Emily for your submission!]

America’s Next Top Model, A Passivity

“In fact, on the Wednesday I made the acquaintance of Augustus Waters, I tried my level best to get out of Support Group while sitting on the couch with my mom in the third leg of a twelve-hour marathon of the previous season’s America’s Next Top Model, which admittedly I had already seen, but still.

Me: ‘I refuse to attend Support Group.’

Mom: ‘One of the symptoms of depression is a disinterest in activities.’

Me: ‘Please just let me watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s an activity.’

Mom: ‘Television is a passivity’”

(Green 7).

Looks like Mama Lancaster would agree with Green, who has said of his choosing ANTM,

“It just seemed to me—and I say this respectfully—like both the most reprehensible and the both formatted (i.e., functionally scripted) of the competitive reality shows I’d seen.”

Emily Dickinson (and some Shakespeare)

“And then we were out of Jesus’s heart and in the parking lot, the spring air just on the cold side of perfect, the late-afternoon light heavenly in its hurtfulness” (Green 18).

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –

'Tis the Seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

    Emily Dickinson, A Certain Slant of Light

Dickinson’s A Certain Slant of Light addresses the weight of mortality and consciousness, a theme prevalent in TFIOS. It is the “Seal Despair” of humanity, the marking of mankind, to reconcile acknowledging oblivion and appreciating the universe. Our fatal flaw, it would seem, lies in the “imperial affliction” of human consciousness allotted us by the universe, and the most we can do is allow ourselves to feel the “Heavenly Hurt” and make something out of it.

The discovery of ‘something,’ finding meaning in a world that will inevitably end, marks Hazel and Augustus’s journey as they try to understand what constitutes a ‘meaningful’ existence.

And, as we saw from the epigraph, the title of the fictitious Peter Van Houten’s fictitious novel is An Imperial Affliction, a title borrowed from line eleven of Dickinson’s poem.

And while we’re on the topic of titles, we’ll address a generally known meta-textual reference, but one worth mentioning nonetheless.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are the underlings.”

— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I.ii.140-141)

Cassius, the one speaking, declares that the failings of humanity lie within us, and that the injustices which befall men can be traced back to the flaws inherent in being human. However, Green seems to assert the opposite, illustrating as the novel progresses, how to an extent our stars are indeed responsible for unfairness in our lives.

Quick Note on a Submission

By a fault entirely of my own, I accidentally deleted a submission made by one of you!

I’m so sorry!

But to your question of whether this blog should be password protected, as the spoiler tumblr of tfios is, my response is this:

No’m. This blog is not meant to be a spoiler blog, but a meta-textual dissection of tfios. If you have not read tfios and are reading this blog, I doubt you will glean much from all these references out of context. That said, I will always put a warning at the beginning of a spoilery post, because as I said in the welcome post, we’re going to try to keep this blog as spoiler free as possible.

If you have any concerns about this, you can always use tumblr savior to blacklist the tag metatfios, and maybe that will help you out.

Again, deepest apologies for deleting your submission, and I hope you will all still feel comfortable submitting and reading the blog!

The Epigraph and The Great Gatsby

“As the tide washed in, the Dutch Tulip Man faced the ocean:

‘Conjoiner rejoinder poisoner concealer revelator. Look at it,

Rising up and rising down, taking everything with it.’

‘What’s that?’ Anna asked.

‘Water,’ the Dutchman said. ‘Well, and time.’

Peter Van Houten, An Imperial Affliction  

Epigraph of The Fault in Our Stars

“Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;

If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,

Till she cry, “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,

I must have you!”

Thomas Parke D’Invilliers

Epigraph of The Great Gatsby

And what is the underlying connection between these epigraphs?

Their authors. They don’t exist.

Well. You won’t run into them on the street (although, fun fact, Thomas Parke D’Invilliers is a character in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise).

This breaks the definition of an epigraph, a quote at the beginning of a book meant to establish a theme. The keyword in this definition being “quote.”

So why do Green and Fitzgerald choose to quote fictional characters and the writing of fictional characters?

Establishment of theme, perhaps.

In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby essentially dons a “gold hat” to win the affection of a woman, but in doing so, constructs a false identity for himself which ultimately leads to, well, events we shan’t spoil here. In TFIOS, Hazel and Augustus struggle with inevitable oblivion, much as the “ocean” takes “everything with it”. The parallel between water and time in the Van Houten epigraph is a theme that recurs throughout the novel. Another recurrence in TFIOS is Gatsby references. The description of Isaac in chapter one, for example, seems to echo imagery in The Great Gatsby.

“One eye had been cut out when he was a kid, and now he wore the thick glasses that made his eyes (both the real one and the glass one) preternaturally huge, like his whole head was basically this fake eye and this real eye staring at you.” (Green, 6)

Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, anyone?

“The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.” (Fitzgerald, 15)

So…T.J. and Isaac have huge eyes and no face, peering out at you with their enormity?

Sounds like a Gatsby reference to me.

We will leave the extraction of other meta-textual metaphors for their respective chapters, as this is only the beginning of Gatsby references in TFIOS.

And tomorrow, a continuation of chapter one!


As you can see from the “About” section, this is a tumble blog highlighting the meta textual references made in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Posts will begin on Monday Feb. 13, starting with the epigraph and Chapter One. Submissions of meta textual discoveries are welcome, but let’s try to keep this blog as spoiler free as possible, shall we?

Stay tuned!